What Continuum of Care System Performance Data Tell Us—& What We Still Need to Know—About Advancing Economic Opportunity for Homeless Jobseekers
By Caitlin C. Schnur, Policy Associate, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity
In late April, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released the 2016 Continuum of Care (CoC) system performance data. As a part of an effort to understand how CoCs operate as a system to prevent and end homelessness within their jurisdictions, CoCs are required to collect and report on a variety of performance measures including employment and income growth for adults staying in and exiting the homeless service system. The data set from HUD is packed full of important information that can help stakeholders understand how to better end homelessness in their communities. Here are some of our initial takeaways from the 2016 data, with a specific focus on Measure #4, employment and income growth of people experiencing homelessness.
#1: There’s room for improvement when it comes to connecting people experiencing homelessness to earned income.
In 2016, only 19 percent of people, on average, exited the homeless service system having increased their earned income. Put another way, the vast majority of people—about eight out of 10—are leaving the system without earning more money than when they entered. This is troubling, because employment success and housing stability are closely linked. First, we know that people experiencing homelessness need to, want to, and can work. When parents of families experiencing homelessness are asked to name the one thing that would most help get their family back on its feet, the most common answer is employment. Second, many people experiencing homelessness are working, but aren’t earning enough to keep a stable roof over their heads. To prevent returns to homelessness, it’s especially critical to increase earned income among people exiting the system. In the coming years, it will be important to unpack the relationship between how well a CoC connects people exiting the system to earned income and rates of return to homelessness.
#2: Place matters when it comes to economic opportunity for people experiencing homelessness—but why and how?
While only 19 percent of people, on average, exited the homeless service system with increased earned income in 2016, these data were highly variable across the country: in some CoCs, 100 percent of exiters left with increased earned income and in others zero percent did so. There’s also a lot of variability within states. For example, in New Jersey, one CoC saw zero percent of its exiters leave with increased earned income; at the same time, the states boasts one of the country’s top-performing smaller CoCs for this measure, Bergen County, where nearly half of exiters left with increased earned income. The story’s similar across the country in California, where CoCs had between two and 41 percent of people exiting the system with increased earned income. While the data make clear that place matters when it comes to connecting people experiencing homelessness to employment, they don’t tell us why or how. Why are some CoCs performing highly on this measure while others struggle? Is success translatable across CoCs? While we’re creating a map that may illuminate geographic trends, other questions worth asking include how a CoC’s performance relates to local labor market conditions, racial demographics, rates of poverty, and intentional collaboration between the CoC and the public workforce system, among others.
#3: System-level data give an overall picture, but granular data matter, too.
The system-level data about how many people are exiting homeless services with increased earned income are important because they track general trends across the country, reveal bright spots, and show where improvement is needed. That said, these data don’t give insight into the specific employment needs, interests, and activities of people experiencing homelessness—granular data that can help shape a CoC’s program, policy, and system-level choices regarding employment. Although HUD doesn’t require the collection of these granular data, CoCs can gather this important information via the Point-In-Time count as well as through Coordinated Entry assessment. CoCs can also ask the public workforce system to share their data on jobseekers’ housing status, which many workforce development programs are required to collect. With all of this information, CoCs can make intentional decisions about advancing employment and economic opportunity for people experiencing homelessness that, over time, may improve their overall system performance.